ATLANTA — You do not have to be crazy to believe that Louisiana State can do what Alabama could not--namely, keep from losing to Kentucky four times in the same season. You do not have to be crazy to believe that these 11-time losers can make it to the Final Four.
But it helps.
Dale Brown, coaching candidate for the R.P. McMurphy Institute, as soon as that job opens, saw his LSU team eliminate favored Georgia Tech, 70-64, in the NCAA Southeast Regional Thursday night at the Omni. In so doing, the Tigers earned another turn at beating Kentucky, which knocked off Alabama, 68-63, and qualified for Saturday's regional final.
This same Dale Brown has seen his team lose its superstar high school recruit, lose its leading scorer and rebounder to injury, lose weight and stamina to a chicken pox epidemic, and lose 11 games after a 14-0 start.
This might explain why he does the crazy things he does--like his mentioning, on the eve of playing Georgia Tech in Atlanta, that to avoid a hometown advantage the NCAA should consider moving the regional to the planet Venus.
The coach said somebody came up to him after that and said there were people who thought he was crazy. "Well, what does that tell you about how crazy my team is?" Brown said after Thursday's big win. "They believe in me . That really puts them in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' doesn't it?"
Crazy things have been happening throughout the NCAA tournament, which now has three Southeastern Conference schools among the elite eight. The only conference team that has lost in NCAA or NIT postseason play so far is Alabama--which was forced to play another SEC team.
Kentucky (32-3) beat Alabama for the fourth time this season, riding 22 points by All-American forward Kenny Walker. It already has taken care of LSU three times, but these Tigers have changed their stripes a bit. They now rely on deadly outside shooting instead of on inside muscle.
Guards Don Redden and Derrick Taylor gunned in 50 of LSU's 70 points against Georgia Tech, which had a considerable size advantage. Every time the Yellow Jackets got the game where they wanted it--as when they took a four-point lead with 6:16 to play--there came a bomb by Redden, who scored 27 points, or by Taylor, who scored 23.
Together, the two guards offset 20 points by All-American guard Mark Price of Georgia Tech, who also was hitting from long range. They also made up for a mediocre performance by nervous sophomore John Williams, the splendid forward from Los Angeles' Crenshaw High School, who had to endure a 2-for-15 shooting night.
"John was just trying too hard," Redden said. "I told him not to worry about it, to keep plugging. Just his appearance on the floor is important to us. We all just kept our heads above water and kept paddling."
Redden, meantime, was 10 of 16, Taylor 9 of 18, few of them lay-ups. "Derrick was lights out," Redden said.
Said Georgia Tech's Price: "Redden was the guy who hurt us. He hit three or four big-time shots. Just buried 'em."
When substitute guard Craig Neal poked the ball from Taylor and drove the length for a 56-52 lead, Tech's largest of the night, the game appeared to be getting away from LSU, which had led by six at halftime.
But Taylor made three straight baskets, then stole the ball from Tech's Tom Hammonds, a freshman whose 16-point effort picked up the slack on a front line that was having a poor game. Taylor fed Redden, whose jumper gave LSU a 60-58 lead, a lead that it never lost.
Redden and Price traded bombs. Then, with 1:24 to play, Redden's free throws made it 64-60.
Georgia Tech forward Bruce Dalrymple, who had only one more point than he did fouls, tried to drive the basket and fouled out instead. On the other end, LSU's Williams made his best play of the night, a Magic Johnson-like bullet pass through traffic that Ricky Blanton laid in. It was 66-60 and that was that.
This makeshift lineup was what Brown was left with after prep star Tito Horford left campus and after team leader Nikita Wilson was injured Jan. 18, never to return. There was even a rash of chicken pox that caused a quarantine and the postponement of a game.
But the Tigers still managed to qualify for the NCAA field, then outlasted Purdue and Memphis State in very close games on their home floor--in Baton Rouge, not on Venus. And they still feel confident that Kentucky can be had, because they gave the Wildcats a real scare at Rupp Arena during the recent SEC tournament.
Kentucky's game with Alabama Thursday night marked the first time two SEC schools had ever met in a postseason tournament other than the conference's own. With Louisiana State winning, the SEC is now assured of at least one representative at Dallas for the Final Four.
Alabama (24-9), trying desperately to figure a way to beat Kentucky, held, hooked and bloodied Walker, but the Wildcat forward took it and dished it back. The Crimson Tide's sagging defense could not stop him from getting 22 points and 7 rebounds.
"Kenny Walker's ready to play at this time of year," Walker said of himself. "This is for all the marbles."
Alabama was playing quite well, leading 23-20, before Kentucky reeled off 12 straight points. It was about that time the Crimson Tide started passing up good passes in favor of bad shots, to the extent that they were credited with only five assists in the first half and not one in the second.
Alabama center Derrick McKey hooked elbows with Walker through so much of the game that it looked as though they were square-dancing. Walker also was knocked down at one point and played the next few minutes with a bloody lip.
But they still managed once again to turn the Tide. The law of averages said Alabama had a chance this time, but when that was suggested to Kentucky forward Winston Bennett, his reply was: "We don't believe in the law of averages."